HOT SPRINGS, Ark. It took 42 years, an impromptu road trip and the luck of the draw, but I got to mark through something on my bucket list on Monday.
I honestly can't remember a time in my life when I was not a sports fan, and typically that rubs off on people around me. I have met a number of professional athletes in my life, thanks in partly to my line of work, but also to being in the right place at the right time.
That was the case Monday.
Sunday evening, I saw a pool tournament advertised on Facebook going on for Memorial Day in Hot Springs. I texted a friend of mine, Chad, and we made plans to leave the next morning to go play in the event.
We arrived early, got in several practice games, enjoying the atmosphere and being able to pump quarters into the pool table and allow the balls to trickle down to the end of the table a sound I had forgotten during this pandemic.
Chad knew the place and many of the players. He would mention it was going to be a good field, but I stopped him. I didn't want anyone pointed out, I didn't want to know who I might be matched up against. I just wanted to play, to play the table.
The time for the tournament came, and my name was called out. I missed my opponent's name, but wished him good luck as I won the coin flip and the opening break.
I ran a few before hooking myself, and my opponent ran the rest of the rack. He broke without making a ball, and I ran seven in a row. My eighth shot rattled in the corner, allowing him to pocket two balls to take a 2-0 lead in the race to 4.
I broke and we each had one miss, and I ran the remaining six balls to get to 2-1. He broke the fourth rack, and he ran out after we each had one miss, and in the fifth game I started shooting with three balls remaining on the table.
However, I attempted to carom off the 7 and pocket the 9 to try to win the game. It did not fall, and he ran out to end the match. Despite losing 4-1, I didn't feel I had shot poorly.
Chad asked me how I did, and he told me that's great. I reported the score to the owner, Karla, who was running the tournament, and she said that's better than most would do against him.
Now, I wanted to know who it was I had been playing. She told me, Robb Saez, a professional pool player.
I had always wanted to compete against a professional athlete, in some fashion or form. I never had any disillusion of actually winning, but wanted to see when the time came if I would step up to the challenge.
Later in the day, he sat down next to me while we were both awaiting our next matches, and I told him he would have to forgive my ignorance, that I hadn't realized who he was. He responded, "I'm just a dude."
We talked for a few moments, and then I was called up for another match.
It reminded me that, while children idolize pro athletes, and fans build up their favorites, they're just people, too.
Robb went on to be the last unbeaten player and split first and second with the only player who bested him in a match that day. After, Robb was talking with an 18-year-old busboy, who had just finished his shift, and the boy mentioned that he often would watch Efren Reyes' videos on YouTube to try to learn new techniques.
Robb laughed that he and Efren had played each other often, sometimes in big tournaments and for championships. The boy was a bit star-struck, and Robb spent the better part of an hour giving some tips and techniques to the young man on one of the empty tables.
Of course, who would expect less from just a dude, no matter how talented he might be. Remain humble and ready to play the table, no matter who you are matched up against.